Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Can't We All Just Get Along?

It's no secret to anyone who has read this humble blog of mine, that I'm a somewhat avid bicyclist, riding an average of roughly 1400 miles per year for the past five years (and on a pace to well surpass that this year).  Personally, I can't imagine a more appealing workout than a good bike ride.  I'm out in the fresh air and sunshine (most of the time), and at roughly 15 mph, the scenery around me changes enough to be interesting, over the course of 30 or 40 miles, which is a typical ride for me.  There are not many things more enjoyable to me than riding out among the trees and cornfields on a crisp, 60-degree October afternoon, at the peak of the fall color.  Or even an unseasonably warm November day, with the first snow of the season still on the fields as I ride past them. . .

The only downside to cycling is that I'm always riding on roads built for motor vehicles, and those vehicles are typically 10-20 times heavier than I am, and moving 3-5 times faster than I am.  If it were ever to come down to a direct contest between me and a motor vehicle over which of us gets to occupy a given hunk of space at a given time, I am a loser, every single time, and painfully so, if I'm even so lucky as to survive the encounter.

Fortunately, the area in which I live is, for the most part, a happy place in which to ride a bicycle.  Paved, lightly-traveled back roads are plentiful and abundant, so I am not often perceived as being 'in the way' by the vehicle traffic, and there is also a fairly sizeable cycling population, so drivers are more-or-less used to encountering bicycles, and know how to account for our presence.  The 'Rules of the Road' tell me I should ride 'as far to the right as practical', and, by and large, when I do that, the vehicle traffic and I get along just fine.  So, happy-happy, and all that. . .


None of which is to say that the close proximity of large, fast, metallic vehicles and small, slow, soft, pedal-powered humans is devoid of danger.  Not all of my fellow-citizens are quite so mellow as what I've described, when they encounter my two-wheeled self on a lightly-traveled country road.  Especially when the road in question curves a bit, or includes a few hills, and the clear sight-lines aren't so long that a car can safely pass me without a second thought, there can be a certain 'Impatience Factor', and I try to be conscientious about paying attention to the 'time-costs' that my presence imposes on my fellow-travellers.  As I crest a hill, I will always check the oncoming traffic situation as soon as I can, and, if the road is clear, I'll wave a car past me, well before he can see it with his own eyes.  Likewise if someone is waiting behind me on a curve.  I've had a few 'close calls', where a driver's impatience has nearly led to a 'traffic incident', such as an evasive maneuver when he tried to pass me without a clear sight-line, and an oncoming car suddenly appeared.  Surprisingly few, though, all things considered.

Motorcyclists often complain that they're 'invisible' to four-wheeled traffic, and bicyclists are, if anything, even less visible than motorcyclists (and a lot less noisy).  Because we're small, slow, and way off to the right, some drivers simply don't notice us (which is probably one of the reasons cycling clothing tends to be garishly brightly-colored).  Once, I was riding past a residential subdivision, on a road commonly used by cyclists to make the transition from 'In Town' to the cornfields, when a car drove up from one of the neighborhood streets to my right, as it met the 'main' road upon which I was riding.  In such situations, I try, if I possibly can, to make eye contact with the driver, to assure myself that he sees me, and has accounted for my presence.  Something in this driver's behavior, though, made me uneasy (perhaps it was because the wheels never completely stopped rolling, and I saw the driver's head turn to look straight in my direction, yet the wheels continued to roll).  I saw that the car was angling itself for a right turn, so I drifted out into the lane as I approached the intersection, prepared to cross over into the oncoming lane (which was safely clear), in case my worst fears were realized.  Sure enough, the driver pulled out to make her right turn, right into the space I would have been occupying had I not moved over.  Once the car had completed its turn, I was directly alongside the driver's window.  With my hand, I thumped on the driver's window, startling her.  She rolled down the window, her face flushed, and sputtered, "I didn't even see you."  I could only shake my head.  I mean, what could I say to that?  "Pay attention!"?

The biggest problems I've had with cars, though, have tended to come from a set of drivers for whom my mere presence on the side of the road, even in the utter absence of any other traffic, is an affront to their sense of the order, balance and harmony of the Universe, or at least their own peace of mind, and to afford me even a few feet of clearance as they speed past, seems an outrageous imposition.  I've had a few rear-view mirrors tickle the hairs on my left elbow, though none have actually made contact with me.  I've been called a 'faggot' several times by toothless cretins gentlemen shouting out the windows of their rusty pickup trucks (I gather that this is meant as a negative appraisal of the fashionability of my lycra cycling shorts).  This may or may not be accompanied by a short-range serenade on their horn, which seems to add to the general mirth of the situation, from their perspective.  Another fellow followed me up a hill, serenading me with shouts of 'Lardass!' until he finally crested the hill and went on his way (I may or may not have patted my own ass, tacitly inviting him to kiss it, in response).  My younger self had a hard time letting such provocations pass, but as I've grown older (and perhaps wiser; or maybe just less inclined to bother with the a**holes), I'm more likely than I used to be to just wave as they head down the road, (happily) away from me. . .


A couple stories from my life on the road stand out in my memory.

The first was way back in 1984.  Jen and I were on a tour that crossed Michigan's Lower Peninsula from west-to-east, carrying two-year-old 1F in a plastic kid-seat on the back of my bike.  The tour began on a Sunday morning, in the city of South Haven.  There were something on the order of 700 cyclists, slowly stringing ourselves out over the back roads heading inland from Lake Michigan.  Early in the ride, our differences in speed hadn't had a chance to separate the riders very much, and for the first few miles, we were pretty much a continuous string of bikes, riding single-file along the right-hand edge of the pavement.

Suddenly, behind me, I heard a commotion.  Checking my rear-view mirror (I've always had a rear-view mirror on my bike; I can't imagine being out among the vehicles without one), I saw a car barreling up, along the long file of cyclists.  As it got closer, I heard the horn.  The driver was leaning on his horn continuously, without let-up, as he made his way along the line of bikes.  As he drew alongside me, I saw that the driver, and his wife in the passenger seat, and two teenaged sons in the back, were all dressed in their Sunday best, obviously on their way to church.  And we were harshing his peace.  As he passed me, I saw his left arm extended upward out the driver's-side window, sending us all the middle-finger salute, making sure that none of us missed his message.

Nothing classier than that, let me tell you.  What a wonderful example you're setting for your sons; and your wife must be very proud, too.  What church did you say you belong to?  Anyway, say 'Hi' to God for me, OK, friend? 


My other story happened a few years later.  I was riding one of my regular routes near Our Town, south of the mega-university campus.  That area, south of campus, is generally pretty congenial for cyclists.  It's mostly research farms owned by the university, and the heavier-traveled roads through the area have paved shoulders (or 'bike lanes', if you prefer), which afford us three feet or so of ride-able space, without the vehicle traffic even having to swerve to avoid us.

On this particular day, though, I was riding on one of the 'lesser' roads.  It was paved, but the shoulder was dirt/gravel, so I was hugging the white stripe marking the edge of the pavement.  As is typically the case, there were hardly any cars on the road, anyway, and almost never two cars in both opposing lanes at the same time.

A carload of college students passed me, heading north, toward the main campus.  They gave me a half-lane of clearance, which is entirely generous, so I thought nothing of it.  A couple hundred yards ahead of me, they pulled off to the side of the road.  Again, I thought nothing of it; perhaps they were lost, and needed to consult a map, or whatever.

As I rode on, they stayed on the side of the road, and before long, I was coming to the point where I would have to pull out into the lane to pass them, and I hoped that they remembered that I was there, and didn't pull out into me (or onto me) as I rode by.

When I was within ten yards or so of their rear bumper, just as I was preparing to swing around, suddenly the car lurched forward, spinning its rear tires and spraying me with dirt and gravel, honking the horn, its occupants laughing as they squealed their tires on down the pavement.  In the gravel shower, I didn't even have the opportunity to get their plate number.  (damn!)  I have no idea what I might or might not have done to provoke such an attack, but that's probably about the worst behavior I've ever suffered at the hands of a driver.

So, all things considered, not too bad at all. . .


  1. Lots to comment on here, but the last tale burns me up more than some of the others you described. What sort of dribbles from humanity's dick would do something like that and find it funny? Amazing. No matter how many times I hear of stuff like that, it always sickens me anew.

    I hang out, electronically speaking, at a place called Universal Hub, a website devoted to Boston news stories and other interesting tidbits of the day. Any time bicycles are mentioned, an astounding debate begins in the comments, militant bicyclists haranguing obtuse motorists, as well as vice-versa, and it's always a fun read (if one likes to hear nominally adult infants squabbling.)

    If you have some time, you might find it instructive concerning Boston's vehicular traffic, should you ever be of a mind to come here and try cycling the cowpaths, er, streets.
    (among others)

  2. Suldog - "dribbles from humanity's dick". . .

    I was gonna go with 'asswipes', but I'm OK with your version. . .

    I'm very cautious about riding in the city, and I'll go a fair bit out of my way for the sake of a safer (wider, less-traveled) route thru the urbanity.

    I have had it pointed out to me that, even though my rights to the road might be equal to any motor vehicle's, I am much worse off if it comes down to a direct contest over whose rights will prevail. So, while I generally ride fairly assertively, aiming for visibility, and letting the drivers know what my plans are, I will happily yield if a driver decides he doesn't like my plan. . .

    I am punctilious about red lights in town, altho in the absence of cross-traffic, I will sometimes run a red light, just so as to eliminate confusion as to what happens when the light turns green. Standing at a red light in the bike lane, while the car to your left is signaling a right turn, is a dicey situation.

  3. I've tried to be inspired by your travels enough to get back in the game myself but alas, work keeps me hanging on late at night so I bike through you. ;)

    My second bike was one of those Raleigh 3-speeds complete with fenders. I was fortunate to have 2 occasions when drivers thought it would be fun to push me using the rear fender. Fortunate to not have been run over, that is.

  4. our area is absolutely horrid for cyclists (curvy, hilly mountain roads with scant shoulders and aggressive city drivers)....and my husband and son are both avid cyclists. my husband has been hit twice. i pray...a lot.

    your last example, the dribbles from humanity's dick, they just need to be flogged....with bike chains.

  5. Xavier - Wow; I had no idea. I would ride much more conscientiously if I'd known I was bearing your vicarious burden. . .

    Sounds like you've got a few of the same guys I've met, out your way. . .

    Lime - Yeah, that's an unfortunate set of parameters y'all are stuck with. Mr. Lime has been hit twice? Ouch!

    Actually, the time I was probably most fearful on my bike was when a couple of gravel-haulers were converging, from opposite directions, on the spot where I was riding, on a narrow shoulderless stretch of road. I just rolled off into the weeds that time, and waited for my adrenaline to go back to normal. . .

    Flogging with bicycle chains. . . I could get behind that. . .

  6. Ironically I nearly wasted 'one of you' the morning after my comment. Was tooling on my ride to work and approached a biker on the shoulder who was, in turn, approaching someone at a mailbox. For some unexplainable reason the biker 'flew' to the middle of the road. Fortunately no one but me was coming or going so I whipped right around him instead of, you know, SPLAT!!

    And all i could think of was "Did Craig send him to test me?" ;-)

    Yes, I have been working too many long days and nights. Why do you ask?

  7. (*sigh*)

    Yeah, the mix of bikes and cars is a difficult one, even if everyone did perfectly what they 'should' do. Alas, some of us are not so 'perfect' as all that. . .

    And hey, I WISH I had that kind of power. . . (or, you know, maybe not. . .)

  8. I always watch with unabashed admiration those cyclist around our city which navigate the urban ebb and flow of traffic; hand signals and their bravado their only recourse.

    Personally, as a driver I get a little nervy driving alongside a cyclist. Some macabre corner of my mind is witnessing the bicycle tire swerve, lose purchase and slide/spin under my wheels the entire time. I chalk it up to a particularly grisly accident that happened on a bridge in the town I grew up in. A cyclist got sucked in by the updraft (wrong term, but you know what I mean...) of a semi trailer that passed by in the next lane. The pavement was stained for some time afterwards and needless to say it made an impression on my young mind.

  9. Wow, Flutter, that's pretty gruesome. . .

    I've been passed at pretty close range by gravel-haulers lots of times, but I've never felt anything like that kind of 'suction'. Maybe I'm just bigger than that poor guy was. . .

    My two cardinal principles for riding in traffic:
    (1) visibility, and (2) predictability. Make sure the vehicle traffic can see me (which sometimes means that I ride a tad 'bolder' than might seem intuitive), and try like hell to make sure that the drivers know what you're gonna do next. It's guys like Xavier's 'Flyer' that end up dead too soon. . .

    I could also add a 'Zeroth' priniclple of riding in city traffic: Don't ride in city traffic. If you MUST ride in city traffic, ride as little as you can in city traffic. If you have no choice, look for less-heavily traveled routes. Riding down a busy four-lane thoroughfare at rush-hour is craziness. . .